A Scottsdale-based artist, a seasoned world traveler, and an alumna of The Ohio State University, Joan Collins is passionate about the natural world that surrounds her. The view of the iconic McDowell Mountains from her home and studio is often a source of refreshment and inspiration for her “energized abstract landscapes” that depict her worldwide wanderings and the ever-changing colors and patterns of nature.
Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Collins earned a BS in marketing with a minor in international business from The Ohio State University, but once she moved to Massachusetts after graduation, she began experimenting with watercolors in sketch books, drawing inspiration from the scenery at the tip of Cape Ann in Rockport, where her journey as a landscape painter began.
Here’s Joan Collins, in her own words, on her inspirations, her evolving practice, and lifelong dedication to supporting the arts.
“…I was reminded that sometimes it’s the scary roads we need to travel to find our way back to ourselves and our art.”
Joan Collins. Self portrait. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us about where you’re from and when you first knew you wanted to be an artist.
Joan Collins: Nature revives me. Oceans soothe me. Sea life intrigues me. Animals ground me. Mountains awe me. Storms stir me. Sunsets thrill me. Working to help restore and preserve Mother Earth has been my profession and mission for the last 20 years, and that extends to showing its beauty through my paintings.
I grew up in the Midwest in Columbus, Ohio, surrounded by rows of cornfields, puffy clouds and quiet rivers, and, of course, college football in the fall—go Bucks! I graduated from The Ohio State University with a BS degree in marketing and a minor in international business. After that, I moved to the Northeast, where I worked in the financial district in Boston. I couldn’t afford to live in the city, so I commuted from the North Shore. I lived in Salem on the top floor of an old sea captain’s home.
The meandering weekend drives I took on MA-128 brought me to the tip of Cape Ann in Rockport, where I started experimenting with watercolors in sketch books and then larger paintings on paper. There was something about the sea and seashore, fertile gardens, and the horizon line where the sky laid down with the Atlantic that inspired me. One cold and snowy day in Boston, I read an article in Condé NastMagazine about a schooner-sailing trip along the coast of Turkey. Its focus was on plein air watercolor instruction. I kept the article and a few years later, I booked the trip. We sailed along the cyan-colored Aegean Sea on a 60-foot schooner, sketched ancient ruins in fields of wild sage, painted primary-colored seaports like Bodrum, and applied Payne’s gray to capture silhouettes of Byzantine buildings on the Bosporus. I still use Payne’s gray in almost every painting today.
My British instructor wasn’t sure about my impressionistic style and kept trying to sway me back to realism. But there was a fiction writer on board from London who encouraged me with enthusiastic critiques at the end of each day. Her words of wisdom were to stay the course and be authentic. Early lessons in my art journey were less about perspective and more about perception. The art seeds were planted during this time in New England and that trip to Turkey, but it was attending an art workshop on Sherkin Island in West Cork, Ireland, that led me to calling myself an artist.
Now, I live and paint in my studio in the heart of the vibrant Scottsdale Quarter, where its urban ethos is juxtaposed against an expansive view of the eastern sky. Every day, I see the McDowell Mountains that mark the horizon. The structure of the mountains never changes, but the light, color, and composition are constantly changing. This tension between the rush of energy yet expansive calm is ever present in my life and artwork. I feel called to share these energized abstract landscapes from local and global wanderings.
Joan Collins, Monsoon Energy, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What inspires you to create, and how does supporting other artists and your community fuel your practice?
Joan Collins: Growing up, the household budget was tight, but my parents exposed my siblings and me to the arts with equal appreciation for the beauty of nature. I danced, played the flute, sang in choirs, and when asked to paint a mural for a Girl Scout jamboree—capturing images of Girl Scouts from each country—I did. I also went on to paint a jungle scene on my bedroom wall. Before I turned 16, I’d seen modern art installations at the Guggenheim in New York City and gained early inspiration from live music and dance performances, my favorite being Baryshnikov. Then travel expanded this inspiration beyond my imagination. I went to France for a summer study on the European Economic Community, and my first stop alone in Paris at 20 years old was like getting on an on-ramp of life (and art) at about 200 mph! I still have the crystal champagne glass from when a French man at a café sent me Dom Perignon on my 21st birthday. I spent hours in the Louvre, but when I sat in front of Monet’s water lily panels at Musée d’Orsay, I was transported to a world I’d never known before.
My mom, who is a beautiful soprano and pianist, told me once that I see each day like a tourist. Travel for work and play is perfect fuel for an everyday tourist. I guess you could say this lifestyle flows right into my artwork, with each painting a bit like a postcard. The energy and imagery brush onto the canvas like I’m creating an open invitation from my world to yours.
Another key motivation for me is bringing people into my art world as well as sparking creativity in others. I just started sharing stories from some of these amazing individuals in their own voices with a podcast called Art Unsurfaced. In the first podcast, I interview three amazing women: Stephanie Stickford, Leslie Conners, and Daphne Azzi, who flew to Ireland to help me get my art up for my first international show. The second episode, I speak to global art collector Michele Tihami. I’m also committed to encouraging, promoting, and investing in other artists work as well. And finally, a key ingredient to curating an inspired art life is giving back to community. As part of this service, I donate my art to one or two local art auctions each year that benefit several wonderful causes, such as the Art from the Heart Auction hosted by Free Arts, a non-profit organization with a mission to produce art-focused positive experiences and mentors to build resilience in children who have experienced ongoing trauma or abuse. In 2019-2020, I was part of the Loaned Artwork program at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. It brought me such a good feeling to think that perhaps, even if just for one patient, my artwork could bring a sense of peace. I also designed in 2012 and 2013 a series of art sessions titled “Strength in Women” for women housed in a Phoenix-based women’s shelter. Seeing these women working with all kinds of media to express deeply impacted me.
Joan Collins, Passages, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are the media that you prefer to work in?
Joan Collins: I’ve evolved. My work originated with pencils, pens, and watercolors. Looking back on those sketches, I can see the early origins of marks, shapes, and layering of color I use today. I also studied sculpture at Scottsdale Community College, where I had access to all kinds of materials and tools (and space.) I forged iron, poured and cast bronze, tooled wood, and carved travertine. Then, I found gesso and quick-drying acrylics. I started painting like a sculptor—moving, adding, and scraping paint around the canvas. My painting process is physical and messy. I find this technique results in striking contours made of heavy and opaque color and texture against thin, filmy transparency. I can’t get this with oils, but in some of my work, oils give me that rich color only they can deliver.
When I paint, I often think of looking down at my toes in clear ocean water and seeing the layers of refracted light and shadows below me. This is acrylic’s superpower—the quick-drying medium allows me to create layer over layer, quickly. When I paint, I dive in like it’s water and hold my breath. I don’t have time to wait, or I might run out of air. I try to mimic the depth, texture, and beauty of nature in my art, only much, much faster.
But paint medium is not all that is important to my process. It’s the marks I make in the paint that share my story. Natural elements find their way to my hand, suitcase, home, and studio. I make many of my own brushes for effect, using feathers, ropes, springs, wire, driftwood, pine needles, and other desert, beach, and urban findings. And each canvas begins with a pass of a feather that’s been dipped in ink. No one ever sees this because it gets covered up of course, but it’s an essential part of my process.
Joan Collins, Wade with Me into the Grotto Pool, 2020. Mixed media on board. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are the topics or subjects that you most focus on?
Joan Collins: Abstracted natural and urban landscapes from local and global wanderings are really my focus. I call my style “energized abstract landscapes.” Phoenix-based curator and director of Artists in Arizona Lauren Edgar expressed this better than I think I can. She said:
“Joan’s paintings are landscapes, spacescapes, and all inferences in between. They are, in fact, ‘artists-scapes,’ reflective of places the artist has traveled to and recreated as painterly surfaces, as her brushstrokes navigate the memories captured by her mind and instilled in her soul. What’s left are the impressions of each destination—a moment, an interaction, a particular picture. These personal voyages come back to life in abstract form, with majestic interpretations of the beauty that she initially discovered.”
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Joan Collins: I suppose I should say Diebenkorn, Bonnard, Richter, Rothko, O’Keeffe, and contemporaries Dan McCaw, Agnese Udinotti, Dorothy Cross, Simon Kogan, and Brian Rutenburg. Recently, I’ve started following Catherine Woskow, whose use of color is otherworldly, and Delita Martin of Black Box Press who’s a magnificent visual storyteller.
These artists are deep sources of pure awes and sighs for me. Photography, poetry and music also fill me up. I’m deeply inspired by the professional song-writing talent of my brother, Mike Collins, and the vocal music of my dear friend Stephanie Stickford, who’s a Phoenix-based singer for the Grammyward winning Phoenix Chorale and Helios Vocal Ensemble.
But to know my true visual art-soul influencers is to know my story about crossing over the Roaring Water Bay in a little red ferry boat from Baltimore, Ireland, to Sherkin Island. Eight years ago, I took a leap of faith. I traveled to Ireland and attended the Sherkin Art Workshop, which was led by art professionals Cora Collins and Majella O’Neill Collins. I shared a studio space with Irish artist Eileen Collins. None of us are related. None of us had ever met.
And I spent ten days truly seeing the color fuchsia. I spent ten days understanding the curves and proportions of a live model. I spent ten days asking nature to show itself on canvas. I spent ten days immersed in art and nature.
And a dozen other artists and instructors who were there helped me see the artist within. They also reminded me that life can be as simple as sipping tea or as dramatic as the sea and that I should activate this range in my paintings. Completely unplugged from nearly all forms of communication, I indulged in the purest dedication to art. I made brushes out of kelp and blue rope found on the seashore. With a handtied tube of sketches and paintings from the workshop hanging over my shoulder, I hopped the ferry back to Baltimore in West Cork. I won’t lie—the narrow and curvy roads in Southwest Ireland are nail biters—but I was reminded that sometimes it’s the scary roads we need to travel to find our way back to ourselves and our art.
These artists whom I met at that workshop have become my greatest influences. I’ve been back nearly every summer since to explore Ireland and art with them. Most notably, I had a joint exhibition with Majella called Desert to Sea in Inchydoney, Clonakilty Ireland in 2016. This was my first international art exhibition. The last trip I took before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2019, three of us were exploring the Connemara area. With an unexpected turn of events, we found ourselves spellbound by internationally renowned artist Dorothy Cross, who invited us into her home and studio where enormous clam shells sat on the floor and foxgloves dangled from the ceiling. Her sculpture, film, and photography explore living beings and the natural world. It was a dream to get a glimpse into her artistic world. Every time I go to Ireland and connect with these artists, something happens that fills my art with renewed spirit and direction.
Joan Collins, Approaching Clearness, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What inspires the use of color and abstraction in your work?
Joan Collins: I’ve always felt like art gets us out of the scripted world and into a place of endless possibilities—especially when it is abstract. I like to joke that my palette is like a mood ring, but it really is! The colors I use reflect what’s going on inside. Of course, the shades, hues, and tones all come from external influences, but the combinations—how they are diluted and dramatized for composition—all come from within to form an abstraction that is pure, personal, and hopefully compelling.
I love to create abstract designs, but they are always grounded and inspired by natural and urban landscapes. Part of my process is to create little books of photographs, mostly in black and white, that I’ve snapped along the way. They are easy to flip through and serve as a creative kick start, providing me with quick imagery and inspiration. Of course, these don’t translate into realism on the canvas with my style, but I do grab shapes, lines, shadows, and perspective to inform my paintings.
PhxArt: What are some works, series, or projects you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
Joan Collins: I always say showing my work feels a bit like skinny dipping—exhilarating yet vulnerable. Some of my more recent shows and projects include Portland in the Park Art Program in Phoenix (August-December 2021); FoundREContemporary Voices (April – May 2021) in Phoenix; In Motion | In Stillness (2020-2021) curated by Artists in Arizona as a virtual exhibition with a printed catalogue; RAA&M National (2020), a national juried show in Rockport, Mass.; Artist Residency Helios Vocale Ensemble (2020-2021) in Phoenix; See|Me and mint&rose 2021 Art Meets Fashion Campaign, New York and Spain; and Camelback Gallery 2021 Virtual Featured Artist, Phoenix.
Also, the next episode of my podcast, Art Unsurfaced, is just coming out. Each episode breaks through the exterior of art by taking you on my art journey while revealing aspects of the art experience that can’t be seen on the canvas. This next episode is called Traveling the Growth Curve in Making and Collecting Art. You can listen on Spotify or iTunes.
Joan Collins, Mystic Valley, 2020. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Joan Collins: I’m currently involved in a project with local photographer Elaine Kessler called SWING. It’s a visual dialogue that takes us across continents, oceans, and time. With her wielding a lens and me a brush, we’ve delved into a conversation elaborated upon with color, motion, and light. The initial “push” is a photograph, to which I responded with an abstract painting. To and fro, we’ve been “talking” for a while now, swaying to the beat of our own unique perspectives. The exhibition will present many works that are expressions of our dialectic. In an interactive twist, we will invite the audience during the exhibition to SWING with us to produce a culminating multimedia art piece. The venue and exhibition dates for SWING will be announced in fall 2021.
I’m just also kicking off a new body of work called Inert Debris. I don’t want to say too much as it’s in its infancy, but my aim is to show this work in a solo exhibition in fall 2022.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Joan Collins shares what’s giving her life during the pandemic.
Joan Collins: Before we realized the impact of the surreal unfolding of a pandemic in February 2020, I signed up for Nicholas Wilton’s Creative Visionary Program (CVP) in a virtual forum called Art2Life. It’s an intensive three-month art course that pushes you to all corners of a creative self. It was really a life saver for me, and my art truly took off. On the bottom of my sketch book where I took notes from weekly, online classes, I kept track of the building number of COVID-19 cases and deaths from March to May. I still get chills looking at these. Like everyone else, life got really quiet. And for someone who’s traveled nearly every week for the past several years, it was very odd to be grounded. But, during my off-work time, I delved into CVP and pulled from a soul reserve of a lifetime of travels. I created pathways on canvases that took me away. This led to an entire body of work that turned into a show reflecting this time called In Motion | In Stillness.
I can joke about it now, but I could also paint freely without any guilt about saying no to social invites—a pass I longed for and didn’t even know it. There was a funny meme that was going around that showed an artist in their studio before and after lockdown, and they were exactly the same. It’s so true!
Outside of this work, I ordered and read art books like Chromophilia and Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World. I played a game of listening to music from different parts of the world each day, especially enjoying the Brazilian vibe. I painted a lot, but I also admit to turning to Netflix for the first time and slipped down that slippery slope of binge watching everything from Bridgerton to Longmire, Bosch, and Schitt’s Creek. Ultimately though, I found solace and still do in getting out into the beauty of
Arizona’s nature. The hikes, sunset safaris, moonrise adventures, and photographing natural and urban landscapes sparks my creativity (and sanity) tremendously.
Today, I’m riding the wave of getting the vaccine and easing back into some semblance of normalcy. Getting together with family and friends and traveling again are so incredibly nourishing. I’m also slipping back into galleries and local art museums. I do, however, find a pull to the studio niggling at me when I’m not actively painting. To stay focused and on track from a painting and art business perspective, I’m a member of The Connected Artist Club created by Alice Sheridan. I saw Alice in action as a coach during the CVP course, and her artistic style and business approach is very compelling. I highly recommend her podcast with another artist Louise Fletcher called ArtJuice.
Artists today have such a wonderful opportunity to share their work with the world on social platforms. But it’s also an art, not a science. I’ve been delving into this a bit, trying to up my presence on Instagram and share more about my art life through my newsletter, website blog, and podcast. With cooler weather around the corner, I can’t wait to get back on the trails again hiking. But I have tried to stay connected to nature through a practice that started with a meditative course I took called Sacred Arts with Galia Alena. I hold something natural in one hand, like a rose, a clipping of piñon, or a beautiful river stone, and draw the feeling of it with the other.
You can almost see in my paintings when I started moving about again. My palette especially adjusted. It took on a high-key vibrancy unintentionally. This trend seems to be continuing, and I’m enjoying painting these immensely. It’s truly amazing how intertwined our lives and art really are, especially with abstract art, which is so much about feeling and soul.